Monday, March 28, 2011

On Sucker Punch: Zack Snyder, Pop Art, And The Title Of Auteur

Pop art
Noun - A form of art that depicts objects or scenes from everyday life and employs techniques of commercial art and popular illustration.

Auteur
Noun - A filmmaker, usually a director, who exercises creative control over his or her works and has a strong personal style.

With SUCKER PUNCH limping through this weekend, ultimately not only losing to critical negativity but also the top box office slot, much has been said not only about the film, but about its director, one Zack Snyder.

However, I don’t quite think that the discussion has been framed correctly.

Formed in the ‘50s by the writers behind the iconic Cahiers du Cinema, Auteur has become the word with which many film critics and historians have connected with the highest quality of art, and the highest rank of artists. Placed alongside names like Bergman, Hitchcock, Fellini, and the like (or unlike, as the theory would be inspired to say), the title of “auteur” has not only signified an artist with a singular title, but also, one who makes the purest and highest quality of art.

Zack Snyder, as much as one person may appreciate his work, doesn’t quite live up to that billing.

That said, the title of auteur fits right at home next to his name, and in quite an interesting way.

Seemingly inspired by the iconic art movement, where as a name like Olivier Assayas may be the “Punk Rock Auteur,” Zack Snyder is the film world’s pop art iteration of the title.

Snyder embodies through his work, particularly SUCKER PUNCH, a film that for all intents and purposes distills Snyder’s style into a potent potion of misunderstood filmmaking, the idea of pop art. A movement started as a response to consumerism, pop art and pop art artists use previously used materials (and in Snyder’s case, genre tropes, more on that in a moment), removes it from its respective context, and subverts it, in whatever way the artist feels works best.

For Snyder, while he may not use previously used images (I’m thinking something like Godard’s LE HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA), he ultimately uses many concepts, tropes, or ideas from the public conscience or genre conventions. Take the first true action set piece in SUCKER PUNCH, particularly the trench sequence. Using almost Kubrickian-style tracking shots, the action is seemingly ripped straight out of a film like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, where nameless and literally faceless villains are being shot in various ways, explosions surrounding the camera and the person it follows, and a claustrophobic sense of enclosure.

Snyder, in many instances, is the opposite of a Kubrick style filmmaker. The best signal of this dichotomy is this. While you can literally tell both a Kubrick and a Snyder film from its contemporaries, where a director like Kubrick is ultimately inspired by his own work, Snyder is the polar opposite. There is a moment within A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, where you see a copy of the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY soundtrack sitting in the record store. This is a single that Kubrick had given up being influenced by the past, and instead is now fully his own filmmaker. However, Snyder appears to be the opposite. Even in his choice of source music, it’s rarely ever the original piece (even the Smashing Pumpkins track used in the trailer for WATCHMEN is a neo-rehash/remix of a previous track, with its own history, given its use in a Schumacher BATMAN film), but instead some sort of remix or cover.

Take the opening of SUCKER PUNCH for example. Using a cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” the asylum where our lead is placed (The Lennox House) is named after the band’s lead singer, Annie Lennox. It’s little notes like this, that prove while Snyder may not be the world’s most gifted filmmaker, there is truly not a single filmmaker like him.

Overall, say what you will about his films, but director Zack Snyder is as true blue an auteur as there is around. Take a single frame out of any of his films (sans DAWN OF THE DEAD, a film that looking back now, is a much more intriguing film given Snyder’s follow-ups), and you will be hard pressed to name another filmmaker that could have shot them. SUCKER PUNCH is a wonderfully interesting distillation of not only concepts that the director has been working through throughout his career, but also his style. A visually arresting, if horribly paced, look at creativity, the freedom it instills, and free will as a whole, SUCKER PUNCH is also the cinematic manifestation of an artist working through his own mind, and everything that makes it up.

He may not be (and truly isn’t) the greatest of filmmakers, but when it comes to auteur theory, he holds the pop art flag proudly.

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